Days 68-70/ May 5th-7th – Salem, IL to East St. Louis, IL: The centre of things

For several days now we’ve been drawing nearer to St. Louis, and it’s begun to loom ahead of us in our imagination like some Emerald City rising out of these endless flat plains.  On Wednesday morning we passed a highway distance sign reading ‘St. Louis: 60’, and it’s a measure of how much stronger and fitter we’ve become over the last two months that we were confident of reaching its outskirts by Friday afternoon – and duly did.

We had to work for it: based on an algorithm of our own devising that takes into account the speed, frequency and size of vehicles and the width of the shoulder, the long stretch of road into Carlyle was one of the very worst yet on the walk, a stream of high-speed trucks rumbling by only feet away from us.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the road was also thick with road-kill, a charnel-house of dead cats and possums.

Sally walking in southern Illinois

Sally eats up the miles towards St. Louis

At Salem, we crossed under the teeming lanes of I-57, and rejoined the ecosystem of motel and restaurant chains that feeds off American interstates.  It was a substantial place, the seat of Marion County, but strangely anonymous.  It has two somewhat dubious claims to fame, as the home of Miracle Whip (banned as a biological weapon in some countries) and of William Jennings Bryan, who had the unique distinction of unsuccessfully running for President three times, before winning infamy as the Creationist prosecutor in the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial in Tennessee in 1925.  It’s often forgotten that he actually won the case – a low point, even for Tennessee – but he didn’t have long to savour his victory, as he died just five days later.

Death was also on our minds at Beckemeyer.  We stopped to rest in its cemetery, which recorded the changing pattern of emigration to the tiny town and to America in general.  It was dominated by the graves of various 19th– and 20th-century Beckemeyers, Heckelbecks, Fehrings and Griesbaums, but in a shady corner towards the back was a small cluster of newer graves, of Lopezes and Perezes.  At the entrance to town was a memorial to local coal-miners, who died here in their scores until the town’s mine was exhausted in the Thirties.  Today it seemed that the greatest risk here was of dying of boredom.

Dead deer in graveyard in Beckemeyer

Beckemeyer: If you have to get hit by a car, may as well be here

We notched up a minor landmark on our walk in Sandoval, where Route 50 (which we were following, running east-west) meets Route 51 (running north-south); before interstates were built in the Fifties, this was the dead centre of the US road system, with an equal number of highways to the north, south, east and west.  With barely 1,500 people, it was an unlikely hub, but it managed to sustain no fewer than five churches, while the sign outside Sandoval Grade School made the boastful but non-specific claim that ‘Sandoval Students are #1’, and cheerily advertised something called ‘Quilt Bingo’ in the gym at the weekend.

Mother's Day car wash

Mother's Day, Illinois-style

From a distance, the pale little suburban grids of houses in Breese, where we spent the next night, looked like one of those model villages built in the desert by the US military to measure the effects of nuclear blasts.  But it seemed like a happy, thriving little town.  The local chamber of commerce was lunching in Wendy’s, and in the window of the local bank a sign invited participants for an over-35 softball league in the summer.  Central Community High School (‘Home of the Cougars’) was celebrating its second place in the State Dairy Contest, and outside the John Deere outlet a group of portly farmers were vigorously debating the merits of different models of tractors.  By six o’clock, the streets were empty; presumably, like us, the citizens of Breese were holed up at home, glued to the live coverage of the British general election and the early results from Sunderland South.

The electronic sign outside the Knotty Pine Inn & Motel in Breese this morning read ‘Time to Start Enjoying Outdoor Activities’.  We took it at its word with a record 29-mile walk into East St. Louis.  We walked out of town exchanging cheerful waves with spotty boys and spray-tanned girls driving into school together in dune-buggies and pick-ups, then walked for hours along a largely empty Highway 50 through barren fields and into a ceaseless wind.  It was more like hiking across Patagonia than Illinois.  But gradually, we began to see unmistakeable signs that we were getting nearer to the city: yellow newspaper boxes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, bus stops, malls and even, at the end of the day, a metro line, which we gratefully took into the city.

Cornfields in southern Illinois

The snowy, jagged peaks of southern Illinois

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